#23 - Fuelish Pride
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
In the fall of 1973, the Arab nations, producers of most of the world's crude oil, banded together and formed OPEC, which was quickly to become the most despised organization in this country short of Congress. The new cartel quickly announced that in order to achieve their political ends they would stop importing oil to Japan, Western Europe and the United States. The politics behind the decision are for another forum, but the results were devastating. Cheap imported Arab crude oil was the life blood that kept this country's economy thriving, and satisfied our car-crazy life style. Gas prices skyrocketed, and gas lines that caused motorists to have to wait for hours even to buy gas became an everyday occurrence. That is when gas could even be had. A troubled populace looked to their government for answers, and among the laws enacted were the now despised 55 MPH speed limit, and a ban on gas sales from 9 o'clock Saturday evening until midnight Sunday starting November 25th 1973, to try to curtail "wasteful" gasoline use. Of course, in the political climate of long on style and short on substance, it was not long before some congressmen were casting an eye at all those big block stock cars bellowing around the NASCAR tracks across the country. A ban on auto racing wasn't going to solve the gas crises, but it would play well with the voters back home, sitting frustrated in those miles long gas lines.
Fortunately, Bill France Sr. saw the challenge to his beloved organization forming, and took action. Big Bill had turned the reins of NASCAR over to his son in 1972, but he still kept a watchful eye from the sidelines and knew trouble when he saw it. During the Second World War, the only sport actually banned by government edict was automobile racing, and it looked like racing was going to be the politicians' whipping boy again. France quickly called for a meeting with the heads of every major auto racing sanctioning body in the United States, to map out a unified response. The initial response was a brilliant one. A committee headed by Bill France Sr. quickly began calculating how much gas was consumed by certain "non-essential" activities. While it is true your average linebacker or shortstop doesn't drink much fuel, other sports teams flew chartered jets, fans drove to the stadiums in their cars, and indoor arenas needed to be heated in Northern climates. Not surprisingly, the committee quickly issued a study that showed as far as using gasoline, auto racing ranked a distant ninth. Among other activities that burned more fuel, were the big daddy of non-essential users, "Vacations", but football, basketball, and even horse racing consumed more gas as well. In retrospect, those numbers were compiled so quickly their accuracy is more than a little questionable, and no mention was made of all the small auto races held at local tracks, just the major events sanctioned by the sanctioning bodies. But they were the only numbers the government had to work with at that point. A congressman might earn big points with the voters back home by calling for a ban of auto racing, but the committee's report had them backed into a corner. Those same voters weren't going to react so well to being told NFL football was going to be suspended and that they couldn't take the family truckster over the river and through the woods to Granny's house on Christmas day.
Instead, a newly appointed "Energy Czar", John Sawhill, called for all organized sports to submit plans to his office detailing how they would curtail energy usage 25%. In his statement, Sawhill also thanked the auto racing industry for having the "foresight" to produce the documentation on how much fuel such sports used. Auto racing had scored a publicity coupe. Once again Bill France Sr. took the initiative, preferring to submit his own plan rather than have government regulations shoved down his throat at a later date. He vowed he would not only meet, but go beyond the 25% requirement to show auto racing's good faith.
The most memorable of the plans to cut gas usage was cutting back the length of all races ten percent. Thus the Daytona 500 became the Daytona 450 in 1974. The practice dates at the track for each team were cut from 8 to five days, with each team limited to 30 gallons of gas a day during practice. The 24-Hour sports car race, traditionally the kickoff event to Speed Weeks was canceled. After enacting these measures, France proudly claimed that fuel usage had been cut 30.1 % during the 1974 Speed Weeks festival.
It was left to other track owners how they wanted to go about making similar changes. Most cut their races by 10 % in length, cut down on the size of the field and limited practice as well. The major concern those owners had was the size of the crowd attending their races. With gas stations closed from 9 Saturday night until Midnight Sunday, race fans driving a distance to the track were not going to be able to make the trip, especially in those massive motorhomes that were almost as popular with race fans back then as they are today. A few events were moved to Saturdays to accommodate the gas sale ban. The track president of the Texas World Speedway, Dan Holloway, took a bit more drastic action. He canceled the event at his track and announced that the facility would remain closed until the energy crises was over. TWS had been in financial trouble since it opened, due to poor ticket sales, and it was located well out in the boondocks, so rather than take a financial bath, Holloway just removed the track from financial life support. Racing didn't return to the Texas track until 1979, and it lasted only three more dismal seasons before closing.
One positive that came from the dire situation was increased television coverage of NASCAR racing. Up until that point, some track owners had been nervous about what live broadcasts of their events on television would do to ticket sales, but faced with the prospects of fans not being able to get to the track, the television money was a handy way to offset the lost revenue. That year, the second half of the Daytona 500 was broadcast live for the first time.
The energy crisis may also have played a part in NASCAR's decision that year to start handicapping the legendary big block engines, which were still the mainstay in stock car racing, though what few big block passenger cars had been available to that point had by and large died on the vine when the fuel crisis hit. NASCAR began adjusting the rules to give an advantage to the small block engines that were powering production cars of that era.
Fortunately, the fuel supply stabilized, as member nations of OPEC found the increased price of crude oil and the quick fortune that could be made producing more oil rather than adhering to the cartel's limits, too tempting to pass up. Starting at Daytona in July, races went back to their full length, and gas stations reopened on weekends so fans could attend events, even if the cost of a tank of gas stung them in the wallet a bit. NASCAR had once again weathered the storm.
As a side note, it seems only fitting that in that year of the fuel crisis, Cale Yarborough won the first race of the year, at Riverside, but only just barely. While crossing the line to take the checkered flag, Cale ran out of gas.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.